Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | August 22, 2009

Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Eastown Motor Hotel, East Cleveland, Ohio – Friday, September 1, 1972

I told Tim and Sue about this great jazz saxophonist/flautist I had discovered, Rashaan Roland Kirk, who was playing out on the east side, in the very black part of town, at a club we’d never been to before. The Eastown Motor Hotel was at 15103 Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland. I told them that we had to go hear him and I would brook no opposition. So we set out, three semi-suburban, west side white kids heading to the jazz side of town. We weren’t even sure we’d get in – I was 19, Tim a year older and Sue a year younger. Even though you could then drink 3.2 beer in Ohio at 18, some of the clubs didn’t serve it to keep kids out – kids like us. But when we got there they not only let us in, they didn’t bother to card us and served us real drinks. We were practically the only white faces in the place – they looked at us funny, but they served us.

Rahsaan came on for the first set and blew us away. I had never seen anybody play multiple instruments simultaneously like that and could hardly believe my eyes. It’s one thing knowing that he does it on a record. It’s a whole other thing watching him actually do it, cheeks expanded like warm fleshy balloons, multiple reeds in his mouth and all those sounds coming out. On top of the various familiar and obscure wind instruments there were the literal bells and whistles with which he punctuated his performance. And none of it was done in a gimmicky or pretentious way; this was not just a way to get attention in a crowded music scene. The array of instruments always served the music and he was damn good with them all. The band was tight and responsive to his direction. They played together like a single multifaceted being. By the end of the first set I was not only on my way to being pretty drunk, but I was really high from the incredible music – practically floating on the cloud of cigarette smoke that hung over the room.

At break time we watched Rahsaan leave the stage. Guided by a member of the band, he settled down at a table in a corner by himself. Tim and Sue decided that since I loved him so much I should go over and introduce myself. They were daring me to go, and I was just drunk enough to do it. Of course later I realized they had simply wanted to be alone – it was a way to get rid of me. But the joke was on them, because I came away from that night with a sweet memory that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Approaching his table I was very nervous. The only thing that allowed me to approach him at all was knowing that he was blind and couldn’t see how nervous I was – well, that and the liquor of course. I don’t remember what I said first, probably a very shaky “Excuse me, Mr. Kirk” or something lame like that. I’m sure I did the basic “you are soooo good and I love your music” shtick. What I do remember clearly is the warmth and openness with which he greeted me and invited me to sit with him. If he had been seeking solitude to rest and prepare for the next set, he never let on. He made me feel special. He listened to what I said and responded as to an equal, as though he weren’t dealing with some drunken white kid hangin’ out where he had no business being. There was no patronizing, nor annoyance with a fan in his tone of voice at all. He spoke to me about his music and talked proudly about his band, which he called The Vibration Society.

“Here,” he said, “I’ve got something for you.” He was rooting around in a bag he carried over his shoulder, the kind of bag a Hindu holy man might carry, thickly woven from colorful cloth, until he found what he was looking for. He handed me a button which said: “VIBRATION SOCIETY – SEEK – LISTEN – WITH – RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK” in black letters on a white background. I felt honored, as though I were being presented with a medal for some great achievement, some cowardly lion being rewarded by an all-powerful wizard. I still have that button packed away in a box of memories.

The button Rashaan gave me that night.

The button Rahsaan gave me that night (it's really only about and inch & a half wide.

Round about this time a middle-aged, mixed-race couple, she was white, came over and introduced themselves. She appeared drunk and was embarrassingly gushy while the husband was much more cool. Rahsaan spoke with them but appeared to be annoyed — which again thrilled me since he hadn’t seemed annoyed with me. The woman kept calling him “Roland” and finally he stopped her and said, “My name is Rahsaan.” As if that was her cue she jumped into this whole thing about “yeah, what’s that all about anyway? All that time you were Roland and then all of a sudden you’re Rahsaan — what’s that about?” He sighed and said to her “Rahsaan is my real name on the planet that I come from. I adopted the name of Roland to use when I first came here because I didn’t think you people were ready to deal with a man from another planet. But now I think people are finally ready to know who I am, and my name is Rahsaan.” The whole time he’s explaining this to her he’s kicking me gently, nudging me under the table, nodding toward me, and periodically saying “ain’t that right?” And I’m just sitting there going “yeah — yup — that’s right,” thoroughly thrilled to have been drawn as a co-conspirator into his joking and teasing of this woman. She protested for a while and the husband more or less apologized for her before the two of them wandered off.

Now it was time for the second set to begin. Rahsaan reached across the table and found my hand — I’m not sure how, but without being able to see he went right to it. He squeezed my hand and asked me if there was any particular song I wanted to hear in the next set. Well, his album BLACKNUSS had just recently come out and I was enthralled by it. My current favorite on it was his version of the gospel song “Old Rugged Cross,” so that was what I asked for. He squeezed my hand one last time and said he had to get back to work.

Back cover of Rashaan Roland Kirk's 1972 album, BLACKNUSS.

Back cover of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's 1972 album, BLACKNUSS.

I returned to our table in a mild daze to face Tim and Sue’s excited questions, the button proudly affixed to the pocket of my shirt. Led by the same band member, Rahsaan mounted the stage. As he gathered and attached his various instruments he was talking with the other musicians. The first song when that second set began was “Old Rugged Cross.” I was in  music heaven.

begun June 11, 2008
version completed August 22, 2009
Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. awesome memory! I am watching the dvd of Rasaaan on Jazz Icons remembering the nite I saw Mr Kirk in downtown Cleveland in the mid 70s. I was going to cleveland institute of art. saw some great bands at that club (name?)
    Gato–Gentle Giant etc.
    Would love to hear a live recording of that nite! maybe 1975 or 1976.
    Also Zappa and Led Zep in that era…….

    • Michael: That was unfortunately the only time I got to hear Rahsaan live and as you have read it has stayed with me all these years, it was an incredible night – I’ve found two live recordings that really bring that night back for me, I recommend both – “Compliments of the Mysterious Phantom” was recorded in San Diego in 1974 — and the first two discs of “Dog Years in the Fourth Ring” are various live recordings spanning the period from 1964 to 1975 (the third disc is the amazing “Natural Black Interventions: Root Strata” one of the most radical albums Rahsaan ever did) — both of these albums are very much what it was like to hear him perform that night — I never got to hear Gato live back then, his first couple albums were really good and the work he did with Carla Bley in the early 70s was great — I’ve heard some later albums and they haven’t really impressed me very much, a bit too commercial for my taste, but I sure wish I could have seen him live in the early 70s — thanks for posting your comment, it is good to know that these things get read once in a while — Joe

    • Mike, my dad owned the Eastown. As time goes on I realize that those of us who witnessed those great acts at the Eastown were truly blessed. I wish I could live it all over again. Thanks for your testimonial!

      • Syd: Thank you for the comment. It must have been amazing to be able to hang out at the Eastown and hear all that great music. This was my only time there but what an amazing night it was. I also went to a lot of jazz shows at The Smiling Dog on W 25th – saw Sun Ra, Jimmy Smith (New Year’s Eve), Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, Larry Coryell, Return to Forever and many other great shows. don’t get so hear much live jazz up here in rural northern California, but i have my records/CDs & memories – Joe

  2. Thanks for the album list…I will check those out.
    The Agora!!! remembered the club….
    Gato was hot and mean that night–incredibly loud!! when asked to lower the volume a notch–he cranked it up more.
    Check out ‘Escalator over the Hill” by Carla Bley… Gato-Jack Bruce-John McLaughlin…intense. 3 LP or 2CD sets.
    Brotherman in the Fatherland – a live date from Germany could be interesting.
    Saw Zappa at the State and the Public. Also fond memories of King Crimson and others at the Akron Civic

    • I’ve had “Escalator…” since it came out & now on CD, a true masterpiece – Gato, Bruce & John McLaughlin were all playing at what i think of as their peaks – it’s got Warhol Superstar Viva & Linda Ronstadt! – Bruce went on to do a lot more interesting stuff, much more so, IMHO than his old bandmate Eric Clapton – the Agora? Absolutely – saw a lot of great bands there – Patti Smith at the top of the list -she was incredible, but also The Ramones, Elvis Costello, Tracy Nelson, Tom Waits, Rufas w/Chaka Kahn – another good club back then was The Smiling Dog Saloon on W25th St – saw Sun Ra, Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, Larry Coryel, Jimmy Smith, Dave Van Ronk, Stoneground, The Beau Brummells, Tim Hardin, Cold Blood, Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock – only problem w/the Dog was how noisy it could be – had been a sorta biker bar before the owner started booking out of town talent – it never really lost some of the rowdy atmosphere, which was fine for some acts but really pissed off Keith Jarrett – I will check out “Brotherman in the Fatherland”

  3. Brother, that is a fantastic story. Thank you so much for sharing it. ❤

    • Some people thought Rahaan was a but – even my father told my younger bother to stay away from Kirk. He said he was mad man ! No the man was a genius and he knew how to keep square out of this world.


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